Saturday, December 3, 2016

Two Re-entries: One Good, One Bad.

A Cygnus resupply vehicle grappled with the ISS robotic CanadArm.
 
There have been two fiery re-entries in the ISS program lately. One went well, the other did not. On November 27, the Cygnus OA-5 cargo spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere and burned up (along with a lot of space station trash) over the Pacific Ocean. On its way out, it performed some vital services. After undocking from the ISS to make room for future cargo deliveries, the Cygnus performed a test of the fire system aboard the spacecraft, with the goal to observe how fires behave in a zero0G environment. After the succesfull test, ground engineers operated the ship to a new high altitude Cygnus record of 500 kilometers, and then launched a series of four LEMUR cubesats. Two days llater the engineers guided Cygnus to its end.
Fiery breakup of an earlier Cygnus mission.
 
Night launch of a Progress supply mission.
 
Things did NOT go as planned for a Russian resupply mission to the ISS station. On Thursday December 3, Progress MS-04 blasted off from Baikonur with supplies for the astronauts in ISS. It was the 4th use of the revamped Progress series of robotic cargo ships. As engineers are still verifyiing safety tests with the new Progress and Soyuz variations, the plan was to continue using the 2-day orbital approach technique to the station rendezvous. Something went wrong during the third stage separation. Observers noted the fiery re-entry and crash over southern Russia. This marks the 3rd Progress failure in 65 launches.
 

Chinese Space Station Success

Illustration of China's new space station. Credit: China Daily.
 
China has made more progress in its ability to keep its Taikonauts in space for more than short stays in a Soyuz-like Shenzhou capsule. Much of the western media does not cover Chinese space efforts the way they cover the ISS, but a lot of that has to do with the restrictive nature of the Chinese government. China's space program is in a phase similar to that of the early Soviet space station stages, gradually building bigger space stations and living longer in orbit.
This illustration demonstrates how the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft would appear docked with the Tiangong 2. Credit: Xinhua.
 
The Chinese station was launched in mid-September from the Jiuquan satellite launch center from pad LC-43. It was originally built as a back-up for Tiangong 1, but with changes in the CHinese space program, it now serves a purpose to help Chinese Taikonauts prepare for a much larger space station program in 2018. With modifications made to the station, it will test new technologies needed for China's new modular-design station, similar to the transition Russia made from the Slayut station designs to the Mir station.
Crew of Shenzhou 11. Commander Jing Haipeng and Pilot Chen Dong. Credit: Xinhua.
Shenzhou 11 blasted off from the same pad that launched the station. The mission used the Long March 2F/G (Y11) rocket. Lift off took place on October 14. The government had been somewhat silent on the mission, finally announcing the crew shortly before the spacecraft arrived at the pad. The primary mission for the crew is to successfully dock with the station, and then break the Chinese record for an extended 30-day stay in orbit. The station does come equipped with some science experiments, mostly designed to help the taikonauts perform health studies and experiments. There is also a Chinese version of the robotic arm, which will become very essential to future operations.

Another illustration of a Shenzhou spacecraft docked with the Tiangong 2. Credit: ?
 
On Thursday, November 17, the Shenzhou 11 undocked from the station and returned its crew safely to the Earth. The mission achieved its major goals. On Friday, the spacecraft parachuted to a safe landing in Mongolia. 
There is some disagreement in Western Press about future missions to the Tiangong 2. Probably due to mistakes in Chinese government planning announcements. In one scenario, this Shenzhou 11 mission would end up as the only manned mission to the station. Another scenario includes a robotic supply mission to the station, to test the ability of a remote-piloted craft to resupply future missions. And yet another scenario includes a three-man mission later this year.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Expedition 50/51 Ascends to ISS

Dramatic night time launch of Soyuz MS-03.
 
Reinforcements arrived for the current Expedition 50 on the ISS. On Thursday, Soyuz MS-03 blasted off from the Russian space complex in Baikonur. On board the spacecraft was truly multi-national crew, each person from a different space agency. Commanding the Soyuz spacecraft was Oleg Novitskiy from Roscosmos (Russia), making his second flight. Also aboard was Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency (France), making his first flight. And finally, there was also Dr. Peggy Whitson, NASA astronaut (USA) who holds the record as the woman with the most hours in space. She is scheduled to be the first woman to command the ISS for a second time, when she takes command for Expedition 51.
ISS Television camera picks up the approach of Soyuz MS-03.
 
Rather than take the shorter direct-to-rendezvous approach, the craft took two days to reach the ISS. Although the new MS series of Soyuz capsules has no problems using the 4-orbit rendezvous approach method, Russian engineers are still running tests and observing results during the two-day approach.  The crew docked with the ISS on the 19th.
All of Expedition 50 together now. Front row: Peggy Whitson (L), Oleg Novitskiy (center), Thomas Pesquet (R). Back row: ISS Commander Shane Kimbrough (L), Sergey Rizhikov (Center), and Andrey Borisenko (R).


50 Years Ago: Gemini 12 Ends Program with Success

Gemini 12 lifts off on the Titan rocket.
 
This last week marks the 50th anniversary of the successful conclusion of the Gemini space program. On November 11, 1966, the last two astronauts to fly in the Gemini space craft began a mission to resolve some of the troubles encountered during EVAs. 

Aldrin (L) and Lovell (R) standing in a Gemini training capsule.
 
The commander of Gemini 12 was Jim Lovell, veteran Navy pilot, who had last flown on the Gemini 7 with Frank Borman. That flight was notable for it's 14-day endurance mission (estimated to be the time astronauts would live in space going to the Moon and returning home). Gemini 7 was also part of the first actual rendezvous in space, with Gemini 6A. Making his first trip into space, was rookie Gemini pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. Aldrin had been a combat pilot in the Korean War. He then attended MIT where he obtained a Doctorate in Science in Astronautics, starting his work on advanced space rendezvous calculations. Eventually he would earn the nickname, "Dr. Rendezvous."

Launch of Gemini 12's partner, the Agena target vehicle on board an Atlas rocket.

The mission started with the launch of an Altas rocket from pad 14 at Cape Canaveral. The plan on this mission was for the Gemini 12 to follow behind, catch up to the Agena, then dock with it. It was planned for Aldrin to perform several EVAs including a spacewalk out to the Agena. They would use the Agena's engines to boost the pair into a higher orbit, and then perform a separation followed by a tethered spacecraft experiment as had been done on previous Gemini missions. During the insertion into orbit, however, there was a slight malfunction in the motor, and it was decided after docking that the boost to higher orbit would not be attempted. After the mission, an attempt was made to control the engine from the ground, and it did not activate in any case.

View from close to the pad of the successful launch.
 
Th launch of the Titan carrying Gemini 12 took place about 90 minutes later, to enable the crew to approach the Agena from about an orbit behind. Liftoff took place from Pad LC-19. During the moment of staging as the rocket first stage was jettisoned, engineers noticed a rupture in the first stage oxidizer tank. Gemini 12 reached orbit and proceeded with catching up to the Agena and docking with it the next day, November 12. There was a failure in the rendezvous radar, and the docking was then performed manually.
Picture by Aldrin of the nose of the Gemini docked with the Agena Target Vehicle.
 
View of Aldrin outside the Gemini spacecraft.
 
 
Aldrin then exited the Gemini for his tethered spacewalk. This Gemini mission differed from previous missions in that extra handholds had been placed on the spacecraft and Agena, which would give Aldrin an advantage in moving and maneuvering between the craft. Also, before the mission, Aldrin had made much use of training preparations using a swimming pool to practice techniques he would use for this mission. These techniques would become standard practice for astronauts from now on.
Photo by Lovell of Aldrin performing a stand-up experiment during the second EVA.
 
During the first EVA of over 2 hours, Aldrin proved that the extra practice and handholds made a huge difference in relieving a spacewalker from extra duress and exhaustion. He retrieved a micro-meteorite shield from the Agena, and performed other experiments while moving about, including a trip to the rear of the Gemini service module. In his second EVA, he stayed in the Gemini hatch and performed further experiments there, including additional photography and extended tool techniques. After the second EVA, the spacecraft undocked for the tethered ship activity. 
View of the tethered Agena target vehicle and tether.
 
The Gemini 12 backed off a bit from the Agena and began maneuvering into a slow spin around the Agena. Similar to previous attempts, most of the time the tether did not stay tight but the experiment was considered a success. The tether was then released and the Gemini backed off to a safer distance.
Aldrin took this picture of the Gemini's nose during the third EVA.


 


Aldrin made a third, stand-up EVA the next day on the 14th. He took more pictures and performed a few more experiments. While the previous EVAs had each been over 2 hours, this was a shorter one for 55 minutes. When he closed the hatch, it was the last time a Gemini space suit would be used in an EVA, From here on out, EVAs would use Apollo - era designs.

Helicopter Point-of-view of Lovell being hoisted up from the recovered Gemini. This is a good view of the flotation "collar" that Navy frogmen would place around the capsule to stabilize it during recovery.
 
Gemini 12 performed perfect re-entry procedures and came back home on November 15. They splashed down only 5 kilometers off-target, and were televised from the recovery ship USS Wasp. The astronauts were taken up to a helicopter and flew back to the carrier.  Upon their safe return, Gemini Space Program space activities had ended. It was time for Apollo.
Aldrin and Lovell receive a happy welcome back on board USS Wasp. Both men would fly into space again, with Lovell making two more Apollo missions.
 
 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Updates to the ISS Status

Blast-off of Soyuz MS-02 from Baikonur.

Since the last post in September, there have been more comings and goings to and from the ISS. As usual. We last had seen the departure of Expedition 48 on Soyuz TMA-20M, leaving Expedition 49 in charge. Commanding the expedition, and the ISS, was Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos, supported by Flight Engineers Kate Rubins (NASA) and Takuya Onishi (JAXA).

Posing in front of the Soyuz MS-02 capsule are Shane Kimbrough (NASA), Soyuz Commander Sergey Ryzhikov (Roscosmos) and Andrei Norisenko (Roscosmos).

The next to arrive at the station were the crew of Soyuz MS-02 on October 21. They brought the crew total back to six. Astronaut Kimbrough was making his second spaceflight, having flown before on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Borisenko is also on his second trip to the ISS, having served before in 2011 on expedition 27/28 and as commander of the ISS for three months. Ryzhikov is making his first flight.

View through the station cupola. Cygnus can be seen docking to the station in the upper left.
 
On October 23, the Orbital AK supply ship Cygnus made a visit to the station, bringing supplies and experiments. Cygnus lifted up from the Virginia Wallops-Island launch site on the newly-redesigned Antares rocket.
Cygnus parked near the station awaiting grappling by the robotic arm.
 
This Cygnus vessel was named SS Alan Poindexter, after the NASA astronaut of Shuttle Atlantis STS-122 mission that brought the Columbia module to the station. The Cygnus was docked to the Node-1 hatch. It will stay at the station until November 18.
Astronaut Kate Rubin inside the Soyuz MS-01 capsule during a routine spacesuit checkout procedure. This picture shows well the cramped nature of the capsule interior.
 
 On October 29 it was time for the next crew transfer to begin. Expedition 49 ended when MS-01 undocked from the station, and returned astronaut Kate Rubins, cosmonaut Ivanishin, and astronaut Takuya to Kazakhstan. With their departure, Expedition 50 began with Astronaut Shane Kimbrough assuming command duties.

Retrorockets fire to safely land MS-01 on the flat steppes of Kazakhstan.
 
Now ISS awaits the next crew of Expedition 50/51, scheduled to launch on November 17. Below, you can see their ship, the Soyuz MS-03 awaiting them on the launch pad in Baikonur. Behind the ship is a telephoto-effect view of the recent Supermoon lunar event.
 
 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

50 Years Ago: Gemini 11

Beautiful blast-off of Gemini 11 on the Titan II rocket.
 
Just fifty years ago, astronauts Pete Conrad and Richard (Dick) Gordon lifted off from the LC-19 pad at Cape Kennedy, Florida.  The flight took place just an hour and a half after the blast-off of an Atlas-Agena mission from LC-14.

Atlas rocket carrying an Agena docking spacecraft lifts off from pad LC-14.
 
Busy times at the Cape. While Gemini 11 lifts off LC-19, in the distance you can see SA-500F, a dummy Saturn V rocket used to test the launch facilities of Pad LC-39A before actual missions begin.

 
A close-up view of the Gemini 11 Launch.
 
In a Gemini first, the manned capsule caught up to the Agena target vehicle 94 minutes after launch and docked without problems. The rapid flight to the docking vehicle was termed "direct ascent" rendezvous and docking, and is similar to the short 6-hour Soyuz flights used today for astronauts to reach the ISS in a minimal time. Once docked, the astronauts used the motor aboard the Agena to propel them into a higher record altitude of 850 miles, more than four times higher than the ISS orbits these days.
NASA publicity shot of Richard Gordon (L), and Pete Conrad (R).
 
The astronauts did not stay in the higher orbit. They docked and undocked a total of four times during the mission, and lowered their main orbital height to about 184 miles up. They then prepared for the main experiment of the mission, to simulate some artificial gravity using a spinning of the combined spaceships.
At a press conference, Pete Conrad uses models of the Gemini and Agena spacecraft to demonstrate how the tether between the vehicle would be used to keep the craft together while spinning around an axis point.
 
In the first mission EVA, Richard Gordon exited the Gemini capsule to attach a tether between the two vehicles. During the two hour plan for the spacewalk, he needed to move over to the Agena's docking collar and remove the 100-meter tether, then attach it to the prepared points on the Agena dock and the Gemini nose. Unfortunately, the activities of the EVA turned out to be much more fatiguing and problematic than the training had suggest it would be. The EVA had to be shortened, but Gordon successfully connected the tether.
Picture of Gordon preparing to exit the Gemini spacecraft.
 
Image of Gordon moving between the two spacecraft. Most of the footage of Gordon outside the craft, taken by Conrad, was of poor quality because of poor visibility in his window. 
 
The slack in the tether is very apparent in this image taken by Gordon.
 
The tether experiment did not go as planned. They were never able to get the taught tether stability needed to fully generate a proper rotation, but the spinning they were able to achieve gave them a measurable amount of centrifugal force.  Later, in a second EVA, Gordon was able to perform a non-tiring series of experiments and photography sessions.
High-quality image of Australia from Gemini 11.
 
Moonrise over the curvature of the Earth.
 
Three days after launch, the mission ended in a great example of the advances America was making with computer technology. In the first fully-computerized automatic re-entry, the Gemini 11 spacecraft precisely landed only 2.8 miles from its planned position, close by the recovery ship USS Guam.
USS Guam alongside the spacecraft and recovery frogmen.
 
Gordon and Conrad on the deck of USS Guam.
 
An interesting photo I found comparing the size difference between the two-man Gemini spacecraft and the original one-astronaut Mercury space capsule. Keep in mind that the white-colored service module section behind the Gemini astronauts did not return to Earth with the capsule but were destroyed after separation and re-entry.
 

 

 
 
 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Expedition 48 Returns to Earth

It's good to be home. The space voyagers rest and remember how gravity affects their bodies after being helped from their Soyuz return capsule.

After a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station, Expedition 48 has safely returned to Earth to being debriefings and analysis of their medical situation and the performance of their tasks. The Russian spacecraft was TMA-20M, which had left the Earth last March on the 129th Soyuz flight. The craft was under the command of Alexey Ovchinin and crewed by Expedition 48 commander Jeff Williams and flight engineer Oleg Skripochka. 
Ground views of the fiery re-entry of the Soyuz capsule and the burn-up of the non-protective modules.
 
Besides working on hundreds of science experiments during their stay, the Expedition 48 crew highlights include the installation of the inflatable Bigelow module for testing, the installation of a new International space dock mechanism, receiving robotic supply spacecraft, and two EVAs for servicing the station and installing the spacedock.
Back in the atmosphere. Soyuz hangs beneath a fully open parachute.
 
Touchdown took place in the steppes of Kazakhstan. With the departure of the Expedition 48 crew, Expedition 49 now begins on the ISS with the three remaining crew: Commander Anatoly Ivanishin (RosCosmos), Takuya Onishi (Japan Space Agency), and Kate Rubin (NASA). They will be reinforced later this month when another Soyuz lifts off from Baikonur, carrying Shane Kimbrough, Sergey Ryzhikov, and Andrey Borisenko. The launch is scheduled for September 23rd.